What Do The Different Plastic Recycle Codes Mean?

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Guide to plastic recycle codes on top of bagIf you are new to recycling, then the whole process may seem completely overwhelming. Yes, there is glass, paper and plastic to recycle… but what about those numbers on the bottom of the plastic containers? What do they mean and how do they affect your recycling efforts? Let’s take a look at what each of these recycling numbers means.

Seven Plastic Recycle Codes

In total, seven different numbers are used to identify plastic recyclables. Each of these numbers is used to determine the seven different types of plastic goods available on the market currently.

The figures themselves are referred to as resin identification codes by professionals and tell recyclers more about the kinds of plastic used in a container. Some variations in plastic composition make specific items more or less eco-friendly or easier or harder to recycle, resin identification codes identify these characteristics.

What Can Most Commonly Be Recycled And How?

While recycling capabilities may vary somewhat from city to city in the US, here are the general rules most can follow.

  • Only #1 bottles and #2 are commonly accepted by community recycling centers. All others are not recycled in most municipalities.
  • #4 plastics and most polyethylene film and bags (grocery bags, bread bags, toilet paper film wraps, sandwich bags, etc.) can be recycled at the grocery store drop-off bins that are commonly labeled for plastic bag recycling.
  • #5 plastics can be taken to Whole Foods at this time for them to facilitate the recycling process.

Unless you have confirmed otherwise with your local waste management department, all other plastics should go to the landfill (or avoided if possible), so you don’t “contaminate” the recycling and overburden your local program.

To learn more about your local recycling options, visit BeRecycled.org and enter your zip code.

PET Or #1 Plastics

Quality: Thin, transparent, flexible and shiny like glass.

Water bottlePET, (also known as PETE) or #1 is a plastic product made from polyethylene terephthalate. Most commonly, this type of plastic is clear in color and is considered to be a “safe” plastic.

PET products include plastic soda bottles, medicine containers, water bottles and vinegar bottles. Community recycling services will pick up PET plastic bottles.

An exception to this rule: plastic clamshells (commonly used for berries, salad, herbs, tomatoes) are made from PET thermofoam and require a very different and more harmful recycling process. This means that most communities do not accept #1 clamshells, despite their acceptance of #1 plastic bottles. Do NOT include these items in your recycle bin.

PET #1 plastic bottles are easily recycled by most municipalities that accept recycled materials. However, #1 clamshells are NOT accepted at most centers.

HDPE Or #2 Plastics

Quality: Tougher but semi-flexible, opaque or colored, waxy surface.

Spray bottleHDPE or #2 is a type of plastic made from high-density polyethylene. Most often this is the plastic used in milk bottles, hair products, laundry detergent, dish detergent, motor oil bottles and in various toys.

This type of plastic is not clear, and while it is considered to be safe, it has the potential for leaching into products contained within the bottle. Community recycling services will also pick up HDPE plastic products.

#2 plastics are accepted at most community recycle centers.

V Or PVC Or #3 Plastics

Quality: Tough and durable; can be clear or colored.

PVC PipeV or PVC or #3 describes plastic products made from polyvinyl chloride. This type of plastic is very versatile and found in a wide range of daily use products including medical tubing, PVC pipes, industrial-strength saran wrap, hoses and seat covers.

Products made from PVC plastic should not be near food during cooking since it contains phthalates. Phthalates have been proven to interfere with hormone development. Environmentalists warn against frequent use of this type of plastic, especially around food. Community recycling services do not commonly pick up PVC plastic.

#3 plastics are NOT commonly accepted at community recycling service centers.

LDPE Or #4 Plastics

Quality: Soft, thin, flexible and translucent colored.

Plastic bagsLDPE or #4 describes plastic products made from low-density polyethylene. This type of plastic is commonly found in food-related products (i.e., sandwich bags, freezer bags, squeezable bottles, bread bags, films that wrap fresh foods, grocery bags).

While this type of plastic is considered safe to be close to food products, most community recycling services do not accept it.

#4 plastics are NOT generally accepted by recycling programs. However, these are accepted at most grocery store plastic bag drop-off bins (commonly near the entrance).

PP Or #5 Plastics

Quality: Hard but flexible, waxy surface and opaque in color.

Yogurt cupPP or #5 describes plastic products made from polypropylene. These types of plastic products are often cloudy in appearance and easily mold into shapes. Most commonly PP or #5 plastic is used in furniture, bumpers, toys and more common recyclable items like condiment bottles, wide-mouthed containers, straws, medicine bottles, Tupperware, syrup bottles, diapers and yogurt tubs.

This type of plastic is recognized as “safe,” and although not widely accepted by community recycling services, it is becoming more widely accepted.

#5 plastics are NOT accepted at most community recycling centers but you can often find local retailers who will take them (e.g., Whole Foods).

PS Or #6 Plastics

Quality: Very soft and white, lightweight and easy to puncture.

Styrofoam cupPS or #6 refers to a plastic made from polystyrene or styrofoam. Most often, this type of plastic is in takeout or disposable containers. PS is also used for coffee cups, disposable dinnerware, meat trays, packing peanuts, packaging material, bakery shells and styrofoam insulation.

Research indicates that this type of plastic is dangerous in that it leaches potentially toxic chemicals that can affect human health. This leaching is an exceptional risk if the packaging is heated, such as in a microwave. Environmentalists suggest avoiding this type of plastic product. PS or #6 is tough to recycle, and community recycling services generally will not accept it.

#6 plastics are NOT accepted at most recycling hubs.

OTHER Or #7 Plastics

Water JugOTHER or #7 is a catch-all term that is used to refer to any other plastic types including acrylic, nylon and fiberglass. Most often, items listed as OTHER are a combination of various types of plastic that were invented after 1987. The problem with using products from group #7 is that there is no way of knowing what types of plastic are “in the mix.”

A few products from this category include computer cases, items that contain BPA, more modern plastics, stain-resistant food storage containers, baby bottles and polycarbonate items.

Since there is no telling what items combine in #7 plastics, there is no way of knowing whether they pose a risk to users. So there is a general warning against using them. Not knowing the composition of #7 category plastics also makes them very difficult to recycle and as such community recycling services usually do not accept these items.

#7 plastics are NOT allowed at most recycling locales.

Learn More About Recycling

Learn more nifty information about the numbers associated with plastics for your recycling. Remember the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle!

What To Look Out For

These guidelines make it easy to see which plastic products are best for everyday use and which we should avoid. There are times when we have little choice in the plastics we use, but when we do, it is essential to pay attention to resin identification codes. Chemical leaching and unsafe plastic products present ongoing concerns, but education can help reduce our risk of health complications.

What illnesses and side effects have been linked to “unsafe” plastic products? Studies indicate that prolonged exposure to BPA can result in genetic damage, miscarriage, low birth weight, poor growth patterns, delay in the onset of puberty, the development of cancer, development of obesity and development of diabetes. It has even been shown that BPA can pass through a nursing mother’s breast milk to her infant. While BPA containing products are now becoming few and far between, many people ask whether other plastics are having the same unhealthy effects on the human population.

What do you do to reduce your use of plastic?

About The Author:

Michelle is passionate about living a healthy life. She shops farmers markets, cooks organic, and eats vegetarian. Juicing and smoothies are a part of everyday life in her home. So are recycling, composting, and gardening. I guess you could say Michelle has a green thumb. Even when a plant doesn't make it under her care, she is still dedicated to making the earth a greener place for future generations.

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Leviticus Bennett
That’s interesting that there are so many different types of plastic. I’ve heard of PVC plastic, but that’s about it. I didn’t realize that styrofoam shouldn’t be microwaved either. I frequently heat up noodles in a styrofoam cup. I’ll be sure to stop doing that.